This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 14, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
How could the recently announced Young Animal imprint improve upon the original DC/Vertigo relationship?
I think this is a really interesting question because it gets right to the heart(s) of DC Comics “Vertigo Problem”. Vertigo Comics was once the bar for high quality mainstream comics. Established after the rollout of highly acclaimed series like Saga of the Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Animal Man, Vertigo seized on a few very potent ingredients and transformed them into an iconic brand.
Those ingredients could be narrowed down to top-notch and largely British creators (e.g. Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman), mature content (i.e. lots of fucking and death), and excellently executed comics (e.g. The Invisibles, Sandman). When you look at the Vertigo catalog, including the series that led to its official creation, it’s quite an accomplished batch of comics in terms of both artistic and historical achievements resting under those seven letters. What Karen Berger did as the Executive Editor of the Vertigo imprint is one of the greatest successes in all of American comics.
Now Berger has not only left Vertigo behind, but it was just announced that she’s now editing series for industry rival Image Comics. That single piece of trivia encapsulates the “Vertigo Problem” rather well. While the imprint lived through almost two full decades of dominance in the mature, mainstream comics sector from the late-80s through the mid-00s, the past ten years have not been so kind. Whereas before Vertigo was the place for creators to pitch high profile, mature new series, there has been a case of brain drain. Smaller publishers, specifically Image Comics, have offered creators complete ownership and other competitive concerns. Readers looking for the new hottest thing outside of superhero comics don’t look toward Vertigo anymore.
This hasn’t stopped the imprint from putting out lots of new material. Under the leadership of editors like Jamie S. Rich they have found some series capable of achieving both commercial and critical success (based on comparable series in the very small, very weird American comics market). Series like Sheriff of Baghdad and Twilight Children are certainly nothing to scoff at, but they are the exceptions of a low overall success rate and don’t approach the highs of powerhouses like Y: The Last Man, Fables, and 100 Bullets from just over a decade ago. Perhaps the most successful series left at the imprint is American Vampire and it is currently preparing to begin its swan song as both of its creators, Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque, continue to pursue lots of other new projects elsewhere.
Vertigo isn’t in danger of being shuttered, but it’s a shell of its former self. It lacks the stable of A-list talent, the roster of top-selling comics, and list of awards that once made it one of the most successful imprints in all of American comics and a guiding force for moving the medium forward in America. That’s how we got to asking about improving relationships and solving this “Vertigo Problem”. How do you try to reclaim the success of yesteryear? Part of that might lie in looking at the origins of the imprint when it took successful, mature DC superhero comics and bundled them into their own unique line. That’s how Young Animals plays into all of this.
But for those not paying attention to comics news (and who could blame them?), it’s probably worth taking a brief look at what exactly Young Animal is besides a terrible name for a comics imprint. Last weekend at Emerald City Comic Con, DC Comics rolled another batch of big announcements only two weeks after the big DC Rebirth event at Wonder-Con. This was the B-roll filled with exciting projects, but nothing with the mainstream draw or potential revenue of relaunching series like Batman or Superman. In addition to a very interesting Kamandi project, DC Comics announced Young Animal as a new imprint to be curated by musician and comics writer Gerard Way.
Based on interviews and the initial wave of marketing, Young Animal is where creators can take a more mature or “quirky” approach to DC Comics intellectual property. Amongst the initial round of launches are reinventions of classic DC characters in Doom Patrol, Shade, the Changing Girl, and Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye. Both the Doom Patrol and Shade, the Changing Man were previously reinvented by foundational Vertigo writers Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan, respectively. Cave Carson is a Golden Age character with very little Modern Age presence, but is likely to be seen in a very new, very strange light with writers Way and Jon Rivera and artist Michael Avon Oeming attached.
Looking at the initial line of Young Animal announcements, it’s clear that the imprint is either coming from a place of nostalgia or inspiration regarding the birth of Vertigo. Taking the strangest characters along with some new inventions from the DC Universe and allowing high profile creators to go crazy with them outside of continuity was what that imprint was all about. In a best case scenario, comics and superhero fans alike will be treated to some very entertaining and engaging new books come September and October.
But how does all of this impact Vertigo’s place in the DC Comics publishing lineup?
The most immediate thing it does is severe the relationship between the Vertigo of today and the line originally conceived by Berger. There’s no room for capes or DC-related weirdness anymore. Rather than look at Vertigo as a home for these sorts of mature and experimental projects, the publisher has opted to create another heading altogether. Way’s outside fame and influence may have played a role in this decision as well. It’s possible that the only way to bring him on board was to give him his own house to play in. Whatever the reason, the connection between Vertigo and DC Comics is more distant than ever.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. While early Vertigo thrived on DC Comics-related content, with evenSandman including references to the Martian Manhunter and the title character’s gas-masked predecessor, that has not been the Vertigo brand for quite some time now. With Berger gone and a more recent history of genre successes that range from science-fiction to fantasy to crime noir, it makes sense to focus on the future rather than the past.
In the past year there have been a surge of new titles from the imprint, but very few have stuck. Even series like Art Ops with fan favorite artist Mike Allred on board have received lukewarm receptions. There’s a lot of effort going into searching for the next big thing, but not much in the way of success. That comes both from a loss of credibility among readers and a less attractive offer to be made to creators. It’s possible that Young Animal could help Vertigo improve both of these fronts.
Since the launch of the New 52, Vertigo’s association with DC Comics has hung like a millstone around its neck. While the two imprints are run separately, the New 52 represented everything Vertigo was supposed to be apart from and company-ties still bound the two in the eyes of many readers. The New 52 presented a surge of new capes comics focused on a house style and valued (i.e. marketed) over the corpses of invigorating series like Dial H for Hero and I, Vampire. Young Animal gives DC Comics the ability to reclaim credibility with mature readers even as it doubles down on double shipping schemes and constantly rotating artists. The strangeness and creator-driven atmosphere surrounding Young Animal announcements could be the rising tide that raises all of these boats.
Way’s name, along with several other attached creators including Becky Cloonan, is bound to buy some credit as well. On comics like Way’s Umbrella Academy and Cloonan’s superlative By Providence or Chance, they have earned credit as auteurs in the comics community. If they can bring a similar level of creativity, challenge, and success to any of the Young Animal series, it’s bound to make readers reconsider their opinions of DC Comics output.
It’s that same level of dedication that may help to attract new ideas and creators back to Vertigo as well. The imprint will never be able to match Image’s deal on ownership, but it is capable of paying all creators a steady page rate. That money matters in low-income business like comics. If Way and his other Young Animal collaborators can convince some creators to reconsider Vertigo AND Vertigo can sweeten their deal to be competitive with other publishers, then it’s possible the next Saga or East of West could be published without a big “I” in its upper left hand corner.
Even though Young Animal is not Vertigo and Vertigo is not Young Animal, the announcement of this “pop up imprint” could give its DC Comics predecessor a much needed infusion of energy. Vertigo has struggled to remain relevant over the past ten years in a market of comics that it essentially created. It will never be what it once was, and that’s the key to moving forward.
Young Animal has looked to the past in order to find a new way forward for the many unused superhero properties at DC Comics. That’s a good and exciting strategy. Vertigo must look around and ahead to grow. The Image Revolution has changed how creator-owned comics function and what publishers look to sell in the direct market. Vertigo has a talented staff of editors and more resources than almost any of their competitors. It is up to them to take this opportunity to make Vertigo mean something again, and make it mean something new.